What we didn’t know that as we focused forward, Keys was quietly being ushered to a makeshift DJ booth about midway in the auditorium. When the lights came back up, there was Keys surrounded by a keyboard, a mixing table and mics. Four floodlights illuminated the small wall-less enclosure and a radiant Keys, swagged out in a shimmering head scarf and white jacket with her key logos on the back.
And she dropped beats. Hard!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The show opened strong with Keys, draped in a black catsuit and floor-length translucent silvery jacket, belting out the retro soul of “You Don’t Know My Name,” complete with the call to “Michael” that gives the song its authenticity.
More hits followed — “Karma,” “Un-thinkable” and “Diary” — before Carlile was called onstage to duet on “A Beautiful Noise,” their 2020 collaboration promoting voting rights. Keys and Carlile earlier Friday had visited Spelman College to discuss the importance of voting as part of United State of Women’s and concert promoter Live Nation’s “Women and When We All Vote” event.
“Earlier today I went to Spelman,” Keys said, as the Spelman grads in the audience cheered. “There was such a vibe. These brilliant women. ... I was glad to be there.”
Then Keys shifted to Alicia the DJ and everything changed.
What was already a rather intimate concert because of Chastain’s smaller footprint compared to bigger venues such as Mercedes-Benz Stadium and State Farm Arena suddenly seemed more private. Fans, phones raised over their heads to capture the moment on video, rushed to crowd around the small DJ booth enclosure.
Instead of a band, backup vocalists and billboard-sized screen to act as backdrop to the songs, there was Keys playing her own hype man as she emphasized the bass lines on snippets of “Unbreakable” and her collaboration with Atlanta’s own Usher on “My Boo.” And when the bass wasn’t thumping, Keys filled the night air with electronic riffs that pulsed and ebbed.
The effort was most effective during an “original” versus “unlocked remix” battle Keys led from the booth with Atlanta producer Michael Williams, known as Mike Will Made It, who was in the audience. Keys played select original versions of songs from her latest release — the double album “Keys” and Mike Will Made It’s bass heavy remix. The audience cheered for the original but roared for the remix.
“They are both my songs so it works for me either way,” Keys said, laughing in Mike Will Made It’s direction.
She closed the second act with the much anticipated Jay-Z anthem that featured Keys, “Empire State of Mind.” Phone flashlights lit up the night sky as fans helped Keys croon, “In New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of.”
Back onstage for act three, the big question whether Keys could keep up the energy. After all, the audience that shot to its feet during Keys’ DJ break was still standing.
Not a problem. A surprise visit on stage by Georgia gubernatorial candidate Abrams during Keys’ “Superwoman” elicited wild cheering, as did the tune that propelled Keys to fame, “Fallin’.” While Abrams didn’t sing, she addressed the concertgoers and reinforced that they should vote.
That was later followed by a Keys duet with Waters on the latter artist’s ‘90s dance classic about homelessness, “Gypsy Woman,” and its familiar refrain “La da dee, la da da”
“My dream just came true, tonight with y’all,” Key said. “That just happened. That was just for me.”
Keys closed the show with “No One,” which was followed by “If I Ain’t Got You” as the encore. On both, the audience sang the choruses at full volume.
“I want to thank you for waiting for me for two years,” Keys said. “I adore you.”
Opening for Keys was up-and-coming artist Mereba, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, and graduate of Spelman College. Her smooth R&B mixed with spoken word and rap flourishes was the perfect setup for Keys because of Mereba’s layered melodies and introspective lyrics.
In a tight 30-minute set, her lilting vocals wowed on “Kinfolk,” “Rider” and “Stay Tru” and she showed great skill when interspersing a quick rap to punctuate the tunes.
Like Keys, whom she called an idol who inspired her as a child to study the piano, Mereba showed her dexterity on the ivories as well playing the guitar with a pared-down ensemble of three.
“Atlanta is the city that made me the artist that I am,” she said, later dedicating her performance who were in the audience.